Kerry 'on vacation': the risks and rewards

With Democrat in Idaho, the Bush team will use his absence to their advantage

Over the years, presidential downtime has fleshed out the image of the man - whether it be clearing brush (Reagan and Bush II) or speed-boating (Bush I) or hunting (Teddy Roosevelt). All presidents need to show the public they're not captured by work, and that they know how to recharge their batteries.

But what about presidential- candidate downtime? As Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry relaxes at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, there's a calculation at work that he can vanish from public view for five days without the Bush campaign filling the void with the definitive (read: negative) take on who Senator Kerry is.

"I would say this ought to be the guy's last vacation if he wants to be elected," says independent pollster Del Ali, looking back to both the 1992 and '88 elections as the best and worst examples of how to run for president. "If the Democrats learned anything from Bill Clinton, this is a 24-hour-a-day job. If you want to be the commander in chief and you want to beat an incumbent, you've got to work your butt off."

In contrast, 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis took a 10-day vacation right after his party's summer convention and his campaign never recovered.

Public eye off of politics, for now

Return to 2004: It's only March, the nomination race has wrapped up in record time, and the public is barely paying attention to politics. Kerry adviser Michael Meehan argues that "with the nomination nominally in hand, he has earned the vacation." From Jan. 1, 2004, through March 17, Mr. Kerry never took more than a day off on a couple of occasions, he adds. Other Democrats note that Kerry barely took any time off after surgery in February 2003. In an e-mail, Mr. Meehan says Kerry plans to "rest, ride his bike, maybe ski."

He is there only with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who along with her late husband, Sen. John Heinz, had imported the $4.9 million home from England.

Macho photo ops

The traveling press corps staying nearby is on the lookout for anything to say or photograph - and Kerry may well oblige with some scenes of vigorous activity. His campaign has, after all, been well-served by testosterone-laden images of Kerry hunting, riding a motorcycle, and playing hockey. Ketchum, Idaho, also raises the memory of macho icon Ernest Hemingway, who had his last home there.

But the well-oiled Bush campaign isn't about to cut Kerry slack. Polls show the public still doesn't have a clear view of Kerry beyond the sense that he is a "generic Democrat," says Mr. Ali, the pollster. This week, the Bush team - most pointedly, Vice President Cheney - has pounded Kerry on his record on military issues. Before leaving for Idaho, Kerry hit back, accusing President Bush of arrogance in foreign policy and overextending US forces.

During Kerry's absence, the Bush team will stay on attack, while Kerry's side will make do with surrogates, such as Wesley Clark and Howard Dean.

Democratic strategist Jenny Backus says there's no risk in relying on surrogates for a few days. "We are in a season of slings and arrows right now, not nuclear bombs," she says. "These are skirmishes. A smart commander knows when to rest your troops and when to send folks out to the front line."

Earlier this week, though, Kerry found that surrogates aren't always the best spokespeople for his cause. When Governor Dean said - in a conference call Tuesday set up by the Kerry campaign - that Mr. Bush's decision to send troops to Iraq appeared to be related to the bombings in Spain, Kerry the next day distanced himself from the comment.

The Bush team doesn't even need Kerry himself out on the stump to keep skewering him, with the senator's vast trove of public statements to work with. In his speech Wednesday, Mr. Cheney got a big laugh from his audience when he quoted Kerry saying "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." The senator had been complaining that Bush was not adequately supplying troops in Iraq, but in the end, he voted against the $87 billion legislation for reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kerry seems to have fallen back into his pattern during the primaries of reacting only defensively to opponents' charges, rather than taking the offensive, too. The lessons of the '92 Clinton campaign can't be reinforced enough, says Del Ali, the pollster.

"Bill Clinton was politically the best counterpuncher in the 20th century," says Ali. "If you threw a jab at Clinton, he'd hit back three or four times."

The Kerry team fought back against Cheney's jabs, noting that Cheney had favored some of the same cuts in weapons programs as Kerry.

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